Regarded by many as Scotland’s Broadway, The Playhouse has long been the place to see West End blockbuster musicals first, while also playing host to the great and good of rock and pop.
Of late, however, it could be said the 3,059 capacity theatre has lost its way. Big-hitting shows such as Miss Saigon and Mary Poppins regularly now eschew Greenside Place in favour of the Festival Theatre, while the music programme has become a haven for tribute acts.
That’s all about to change, insists Colin Marr – the venue’s first ever theatre director.
The 51-year-old, who took up his post in September last year, is well aware of the challenges he faces and doesn’t duck the issues.
He admits: “The Playhouse is owned by the Ambassadors Theatre Group (ATG), probably not a company I’d ever thought of working for, but what persuaded me to give it a go was their understanding of how The Playhouse had lost its way.
“That doesn’t mean they had a pile of solutions, but they definitely understood it wasn’t doing what it should be doing. In the interview process, the thing I heard most was ‘we have the biggest theatre in Europe, in the biggest festival city in the world, and they don’t talk to each other anymore’.”
Consequently, the first challenge is simple, Colin says. “The venue has to fall in love with its audience again,” he says.
He admits programming – attracting the right shows to what is the biggest seated theatre auditorium in Europe – is a vital part of the solution.
“There are two periods in its history where the Playhouse programming worked,” he reflects.
“One was staging the first West End transfers of big Broadway shows. The other was in the ’80s when all the biggest bands played here.
“I think we can combine the two. The Playhouse is where you see big West End shows in Scotland first and where you see the top bands.” Colin’s love of music is deep rooted. As a student at Edinburgh University, his first job was postering for Regular Music.
He takes up the story, saying: “In 1986, my final year at university, I started working part time in the Queen’s Hall bar. Then when I left university, I stayed there and worked my way up.”
Within two years he was hall manager, combining front of house and programming the likes of Wet Wet Wet and Texas.
Colin later took up the post of theatre and commercial manager at The Traverse, overseeing the theatre’s move from the Grassmarket to its existing home on Cambridge Street.
Five years later he was on the move again, this time to Inverness and the bankrupt Eden Court Theatre.
“Working at the Traverse, if you’re not from the artistic side, you’re never going to be in charge ... I wanted to be in charge of somewhere,” Colin explains. “Eden Court gave me that opportunity. What I didn’t know when I got there was just how bankrupt it was. It had lost its way.”
By the time he left 20 years later, Colin had transformed the venue into a successful 840-seat theatre and 250-seat second theatre with two brand new cinemas, two studios, a conference centre, and bar and restaurant.
He admits it was a big wrench, but recognised “it was time for a new challenge”.
That is what awaits at The Playhouse, a venue that in the past has given blockbusters such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Wicked, Mamma Mia and Billy Elliot their Scottish premieres, all direct from the West End.
“Look at what is coming over the next few months,” he says, implying little has changed. “We have the premiere and only Scottish dates of Motown The Musical, Kinky Boots at Christmas and the return of Wicked, again the only Scottish dates. There’s also another Scottish premiere of a big West End show I’m not allowed to talk about, but that’s 17 weeks of massive exclusives.”
Despite this, much is still made by many of the fact iconic shows such as Miss Saigon, once a shoe-in for The Playhouse, now go elsewhere.
“We still have the big Scottish premieres of the shows coming off London’s West End for the first time,” he points out.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t want the others back, but what we are getting is potentially far more exciting.”
As for his other focus, Colin reveals: “I want to attract the great rock and pop acts back as well as the big name comedians, which are a relatively new phenomenon. People like Kevin Bridges and Frankie Boyle can sell-out here night after night. In fact, Kevin Bridges was the fastest selling show we’ve had in years.
“It is getting the flow of the programme right that is the difficult bit. What’s filling the gaps between the premieres at the moment isn’t right. That’s what needs to change.”
Colin continues: “Everyone who programmes a theatre has the perfect programme in their head, but you never get it. No season ever works out the way you want.
“Even when the audience is looking at the brochure going ‘what a brilliant programme’, you know what you have lost along the way.”
Colin will also oversee a refurbishment of the venue, which has already started with the controversial repainting of the auditorium, now a muted blend of whites, greys and greens – the venue’s original colour scheme.
“It is a massive improvement,” he insists. “The deep reds we had for years didn’t allow you to see the building. Now you can and as a result the stalls and the circle are looking better and feel more comfortable.
“It’s a sign that ATG are willing to invest in The Playhouse.”
Money continues to be spent on the venue’s bars. The Stalls Bar is now closed for an overhaul.
“That’s more investment right there,” Colin says. “We have four other bars and by the end of the year another two will have been renovated, improving service times enormously.”
That improvement will hopefully be in place by the time The Playhouse – hopefully – signs up Colin’s dream show and yes, he does have one.
“It has to be Hamilton, but then who is not going to give you that answer?” he says.
“I was introduced to it by my daughter and although I have yet to see it, I know the sound track inside out.”
Until that day, the one thing that makes his job worthwhile is simple. “More than anything else, it is standing at back of the auditorium watching people having the time of their life at a sold out show,” he says. “That’s what we are here for, that’s what we do.”